Lacrosse: Northwestern’s Erin Coykendall nears storied college career’s conclusion

Graduate student attacker Erin Coykendall smiles ahead of Northwesterns Big Ten championship victory over Penn State.
Graduate student attacker Erin Coykendall smiles ahead of Northwestern’s Big Ten championship victory over Penn State.
Daily file photo by Henry Frieman

After she helped fuel Northwestern’s 2023 resurgence atop the college lacrosse landscape, Erin Coykendall reached a crossroads. A crafty attacker who seemingly possesses every offensive tool, Coykendall needed to reflect back home in Spencerport, New York.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and assistant coach Scott Hiller told her to take all the time she needed before deciding whether to take a fifth year with the Wildcats. Much like protecting a slim lead late in a game, Coykendall took her choice down to the proverbial shot clock’s final ticks.

“She waited until the last possible moment to say she was coming back,” said Jennifer Coykendall, Erin Coykendall’s mother. “Meanwhile, I was sick to my stomach every day thinking, ‘What is she going to do? How is this going to happen?’”

Erin Coykendall said she didn’t want to rush into committing to another year immediately following her national championship coronation in Cary, North Carolina.

Although she committed to NU almost immediately after Amonte Hiller gave her an offer more than eight years prior — fulfilling a childhood dream set in motion the first time Erin Coykendall caught the ’Cats in action against Syracuse as an elementary schooler — this time, she took a measured approach.

“I wanted to make sure I could give everything that I had for another year,” Erin Coykendall said. “The seasons are long — it’s taxing mentally and physically … You come off such a great year, win a national championship, your first instinct is like, ‘Let’s do it again.’”

Seeing several teammates commit to returning for another national title shot, Erin Coykendall ultimately took a graduate year in a Masters in Sports Administration program that piqued her interest.

Meanwhile, Erin Coykendall’s preseason preparation with her longtime trainer Shannon Brinson was well underway at Pursuit Performance in Rochester, New York.

“We kind of joked about it when she got back, ‘What do we have to fix this year?’” Brinson said. “To the naked eye, she is what she is. But, we went back through some things, she sent me some clips — it’s more detailed stuff we worked on this year … some specific types of shots and areas of the field.”

Although her college career has entered its final month, Erin Coykendall possesses a prime opportunity to build on a boundless legacy.

The prodigy turned mastermind

When Erin Coykendall looked to join a local squad in third grade, there weren’t any girls’ club teams nearby. So, she joined a boys’ team, where Erin Coykendall said she began fine-tuning her stick skills. There, the future All-American feeder learned assists were more important than goals.

Before she even enrolled in middle school, Erin Coykendall competed in indoor tournaments with Spencerport’s junior varsity squad, competing against athletes at least five years her senior. Soon, she caught then-Spencerport varsity lacrosse coach Patricia Condon’s attention.

“I knew just from watching her play that her age was not going to matter when she stepped onto the field,” Condon said. “Her lacrosse IQ is off the charts. She knows the game so well because she loves watching it and she loves playing it.”

Alongside her older sister Emily, Erin Coykendall stepped into varsity competition as a seventh grader. Despite facing off against seniors in high school, Erin Coykendall swiftly became a standout.

Erin Coykendall said her play did wonders for her confidence.

“I had to find ways to be successful when I was definitely not as developed as they were — definitely not as strong and fast,” Erin Coykendall said. “I found different ways to be creative and get involved.”

Around the time she first shone at the varsity level, Erin Coykendall was one of the youngest players to attend Amonte Hiller’s Massachusetts-based camp. Though she was initially placed on a lower-caliber team due to her age, she didn’t take long to catch her future coaches’ eyes.

Amonte Hiller and her husband approached Jennifer Coykendall at the camp’s conclusion to express their marvel in the young athlete’s ability. From that point, Erin Coykendall seldom gave other schools another look.

As Erin Coykendall progressed in her high school career, she spent increasingly more time in the coach’s office, discussing strategy and scouting her opponents.

“She was in our coach’s office, making game-day decisions,” Condon said. “She was sending us clips of other teams, figuring out who we needed to scout.”

While she never won a New York lacrosse state title, Erin Coykendall won two state championships with Spencerport’s girls’ soccer squad, where she played significant forward minutes from her freshman year onward.

Despite standing at just 5-foot-5, Erin Coykendall became an aerial dynamo, scoring more than 30 headers in her four-year career.

“I have never seen an athlete be able to move off the ball — and her vision, the way she reads the game — to score that many goals off her head,” Spencerport varsity soccer coach Jamie Schneider said. “The timed run, just to see where the time and space is, was absolutely remarkable.”

Fueled by family

Lacrosse quickly became a family affair for the Coykendalls. Erin Coykendall’s father, Scott Coykendall, who had a background in soccer, learned the game to coach Erin’s club team. Jennifer Coykendall served in administrative roles for several clubs on which Erin played.

Their younger daughter did most of the coaching, though, Scott Coykendall quipped.

“He put in so much time to really understand the game and be able to set us up for success,” Erin Coykendall said of her father. “(He) learned so much about the recruiting process and what that was like … He had to learn it all from scratch, but it was really awesome to be able to play for him.”

Scott and Jennifer Coykendall can count the number of their daughter’s college games they’ve missed on one hand.

With Scott working as a chiropractor and his wife managing the office, they reshuffle appointments and make arrangements to see their daughter compete.

“It’s meant so much to me that they always have my back, and they’re always there cheering me on after big wins and even hard losses,” Erin Coykendall said. “I’m just so lucky that they’re two of the main faces that are at literally every game.”

Erin Coykendall said outside of lacrosse, her dogs are her best friends.

Even before her daughters could walk, Jennifer Coykendall passed down her passion for animal rescue. She said Erin and Emily bottle-fed kittens since the age of five, and their household would be incomplete without its plethora of pets.

While the Coykendalls have five dogs, three house cats and two outdoor cats, Erin Coykendall said she views all animals as house pets — sometimes to a fault.

“I’ve gotten bit by opossums, and I’ve hand fed raccoons on the street,” she said.

Jennifer Coykendall gave her children lessons of compassion through animal rescue, but she said Emily Coykendall helped change her family’s lives for the better.

Emily Coykendall ultimately introduced Erin Coykendall to now-NU lacrosse superfan John-John Pazdzior, who she said she sees as a brother-like figure. Pazdzior met Emily Coykendall at a bowling event hosted by Ohio State’s chapter of Best Buddies International, an organization aiming to improve the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When in-person programming shut down due to COVID-19, Emily Coykendall and Pazdzior began calling on a nightly basis. Erin Coykendall then met Pazdzior, and the entire Coykendall family soon FaceTimed or called him daily.

Pazdzior got to know several of Erin Coykendall’s teammates upon her return to Evanston, and the ’Cats got him a ring when they won the 2023 national championship. Most recently, he joined their on-field celebration at the Big Ten Championship.

“He can meet someone for the first time and jump on them — give them a huge hug,” Erin Coykendall said. “He’s got probably 10 to 12 girls on the team that he FaceTimes every night. I think he’s just a reminder of the excitement and energy that we want to bring no matter what.”

‘The LeBron James Effect’

While she had several near-misses in high school state tournaments, no loss stuck with Erin Coykendall quite like the 2022 Final Four collapse against UNC. After addressing the media postgame, she refused to discuss the game in the following months, her mother said.

The defeat marked a game-changing moment for the attacker, Brinson said.

“She was in the gym every day, even pulling two-a-days,” Brinson said. “We’d go to the field, she would lift in the morning and really dial in on the things we needed to fix.”

Her offseason work paid significant dividends, as Erin Coykendall soared into the national spotlight, recording 108 points and earning a Tewaaraton Finalist honor as one of the nation’s top-five college players alongside teammate Izzy Scane.

Displaying an uncanny efficiency of movement and a highlight reel behind-the-back repertoire throughout her senior season, Erin Coykendall elevated her game at the grandest moments, tallying 10 points in the semifinal and championship rounds.

“I call it the ‘LeBron James Effect,’” Brinson said. “It looks like they’re playing super fast, but to her the game slows down tremendously … She’s three, four steps ahead before she does anything.”

Returning to her local gym this past summer, Erin Coykendall provided a glimpse of the elite work rate and tenacity necessary to reach a rarefied caliber for younger athletes. Brinson said Erin Coykendall serves as a tremendous role model for the next generation striving to fill her shoes.

For Spencerport assistant soccer coach Rick Mueller, Erin Coykendall provides a sense of pride for the local community whenever she steps onto the lacrosse field. Mueller said Erin Coykendall would have soared to the top of the college soccer landscape had she pursued that route.

“She’s the best athlete I have coached — and (the best) I will ever coach,” Mueller said.

‘Make the most of every minute’

Erin Coykendall was the No. 2 pick in Wednesday night’s 2024 Athletes Unlimited College Draft, following up Scane at No. 1. She said it’s an honor to join the league of amazing players who serve as ambassadors for the game’s growth.

“I’m just really excited for the sport, and where it’s going,” Erin Coykendall said. “Ever since I started as a freshman, it’s really taken off. It’s just awesome to see Athletes Unlimited sponsor the game, and hopefully we can keep building it … kickstarting the growth of the sport and really getting it growing across the globe.”

While many of her former coaches — and Erin Coykendall herself — foresee a potential future in coaching, she said she’s entirely focused on making the most of her college career’s final stretch.

Through all the highs and lows of her fabled five-year career in Evanston, Erin Coykendall said the daily interactions with her teammates in practices will be what she misses the most once this chapter draws to a close.

“It’s definitely surreal to think that any of these games could be my last game ever, but then you just go out there and give everything you have and know it’s win or go home,” Erin Coykendall said. “I’m just trying to make the most of every minute that I get to play.”

As the graduate student superstar helps NU chase its ninth national title, she’ll have her family watching at each step of the way. With no more guaranteed games ahead, Erin Coykendall may just have some extra magic stored away — perhaps, a secret shot she and Brinson crafted this summer will finally be unleashed.

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